Soul Ayslum BB

Soul Asylum – What Gives?

Even though I’ve called the east coast my home for well over half my life, I am a Midwestern boy through and through.

One of the many traits we Midwesterners carry with us is a solid work ethic. It’s certainly something I’ve carried with me through the years and it’s definitely something I look for in others, regardless of profession…or gender.

I was once asked by someone what I loved about them and after a lengthy pregnant pause I said “Well, you have a really solid work ethic.”

Turns out women don’t necessarily find that to be high praise.

Once upon a time, the great Midwest, and Minnesota specifically, was a hot bed of music. But as music scenes ebb and flow and are rather transient (Seattle, Athens, Austin, etc.) eventually it moved elsewhere. But, being the industrious folks of the Midwest, the Twin Cities still maintains a formidable music scene and a helluva legacy.

But I gotta imagine being a musician from Minnesota is tough. Think about it.

The penultimate literary rock God Bob Dylan is from Hibbing, Minnesota. Further south in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) you find the scrappier benchmark bands (but no less literary) like Husker Du and The Replacements. And of course in a category all by himself, Prince (yea, he’s been back to that name for some time now, so let’s move beyond the jokes).

Always bringing up the rear is the group I consider to be one of the hardest working (and one of the best) American rock bands, Soul Asylum.

From a Rolling Stone article in 1993, just after the release of Grave Dancers Union:

You see, over their 11-year existence (now, 33 year), Soul Asylum have been called many things: Americas best live band; music-industry misfits; punk poets; insightful adults trapped in terminal adolescence; the last great gasp of life from the early-’80s Minneapolis music scene. They’ve even been toe-tagged as dead and gone.

Seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Now, in the pantheon of Minnesota musicians Soul Asylum is always mentioned, but usually last or, even worse, as an after thought “Hey, what about Soul Asylum?”
“Oh yea, they’re great too.”

Sure, everyone knows Bob Dylan and Prince are flat-out geniuses, Paul Westerberg has a dizzying way of writing snarky, catchy and sensitive songs and is one of the most respected songwriters of my generation and Bob Mould is a simply a creative polymath (the theme song to The Daily Show? yea, that’s his).

When those are your contemporaries locally AND professionally it’s gotta be a bitch to be noticed, let alone heard.

Soul Asylum worked and worked and worked and was eventually seen and, more importantly, heard.

But make no mistake, it wasn’t simply tenacity that broke Soul Asylum. Principal songwriter Dave Pirner is far from a slouch or shitty writer. He’s clever, funny, reflective, open…he’s pretty much all the things that make up a great writer. OK, maybe Pirner is not as profound as Dylan or as prodigious as Prince or as clever as Westerberg or as diverse as Mould, but he’s still a fucking great songwriter.

So what gives? Why can’t he and Soul Asylum get the respect their fellow Golden Gopher brethren get? The history is there, the performances are there, the work is certainly there…and it’s good!

I’ve seen Soul Asylum a number of times over the years. First in 1990 when I think they had just been dropped by A&M Records and were out doing a half acoustic and half electric show. I don’t recall this show very much, for reasons I am certain involved a rather prodigious amount of alcohol.

Then Grave Dancers Union happened…and Winona Ryder.

While I never saw them at the peak of their MTV success, I saw them years later on a triple bill with Cracker and Everclear. By then, members had left, been fired and one passed away but in typical Midwestern fashion, original members Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy soldiered on (it’s the work ethic thing).

For that tour, they grabbed fellow gophers (obviously) drummer Michael Bland (Prince, Paul Westerberg) and my generations closest equivalent to Keith Richards, bass player Tommy Stinson (The Replacements, Guns-n-Roses).  This was the line up (Pirner, Murphy, Bland, Stinson) I saw sandwiched between Cracker and Everclear.

On that night at Webster Hall, there was no better rock and roll band playing in New York City or anywhere in the country. They were so good that half the audience left after their set.

Unfortunately, this was not the line up I saw the other night at the Brooklyn Bowl. Stinson left a few years ago and Dan Murphy retired from the band in 2012 to run his antiques business (yea, that’s true). And, well, it just wasn’t the same. That’s not to say it was bad or that they sucked, they didn’t. They were good. Dave Pirner was in usual fine form, drummer Bland was solid and new members Winston Roye and Justin Sharbono held their own.

But something felt different. Perhaps I am putting too much thought into it or projecting somehow but Dave Pirner looked…well, he looked lonely up there. But the band was good, even great here and there. Still one of the best live bands in the country.

The sound? Not so much. The sound at Brooklyn Bowl was shitty. The vocal was so far down in the mix it was impossible to pick out the songs unless you knew them (with a heavy sampling of Grave Dancers Union, most people did). Unless you were a fan, most of the non Grave Dancers Union set was for beer or bathroom breaks.

I get the heavy reliance on Grave Dancer’s Union, it’s everyone’s favorite album…and it’s probably the only Soul Asylum album people really know. The band did not disappoint by playing almost half of the album (including a personal favorite “April Fool”).

Being a fan, I knew most of the set but was pissed about not hearing the vocal. As for the new songs? Couldn’t tell you if they were good or bad because I couldn’t hear them.

I am not sure who to blame for crappy sound at Brooklyn Bowl because I saw Janes Addiction last month and the sound was amazing. Is Pirner’s voice shot? Didn’t they do a sound check? Did they let the Brooklyn Bowl office chimp run the board?

Not sure what the problem was, but the sound sucked. Bad.

Who knows, maybe it was just an off night. It happens.

Soul Asylum IS a great band. They’re great live and they’re great on record but for some inexplicable reason no one seems to care. They’ve been dropped by a slew of labels over the years and are now embracing the PledgeMusic model for their upcoming release. Which is a good thing. For us. If it weren’t for their tenacity and work ethic, they would have fizzled out years ago.

And while Soul Asylum and Dave Pirner may not have the gravitas of Dylan, Prince, Westerberg or Mould, he and the band stand alone in their own right, both presently and historically. You see the goal of a creative life is to be creative. And you can’t be creative without doing the work. Soul Asylum has done, and continues to do, the work…the work of ten bands.

Davie Pirner and Soul Asylum continue to plow ahead. That’s a creative life. That’s not easy to do and that means something.

The band is so much more than Grave Dancers Union (which is still one of the best album names of the 90’s). I just wish more people paid attention but it’s all good because history, rock and roll or otherwise, always rewards perseverance. That’s a fact.